World Class Begins with Attitude

This year, I am dedicating my blog posts to exploring what is world-class in safety. As I we closed 2019, the discussion was about how some organizations like to throw the term “world-class” around when it comes to safety. They use the term as a part of marketing safety without really thinking about what it means to be best in class for protecting their people. For some, it means compliance with the law. For others, it might mean having lunches when there are no injuries for a month. When it really gets down to the real meaning of world-class, it begins with having a world-class attitude toward safety.

There is much debate about world-class safety. Does it exist? Is it measurable? Are there metrics? How is it performed? Can we compare it to other companies? Honestly, those are good questions. Honestly, I am not sure there is a right answer. I do think that there are principles that an organization can develop to create a world-class safety attitude. Before any of the metrics or processes can really be evaluated, there first has to be the right mindset. There has to be the overall compass directing the efforts and organization to the path of world-class. So, here are my five principles of world-class safety.

1. It means we care enough to focus on reducing and eliminating harm

Measuring all the injury and first aid rates does not compare to actually looking at your team as people and realizing that their pain is bad for business. There are too many stories of the zero injury companies that have a large incident. We are not chasing a zero incident rate. We are driving for solutions that prevent people from hurting for doing their job. Yes, seeking no harm will affect an incident rate. But it is not the incident rate that is the goal. We have to learn from every incident, adapt based on near misses, and improve through observation.

2. It means there are no boundaries for protecting our team

A 1987 speech from Paul O’Neill as he took the helm of Alcoa summarizes this best (Full Story Link)

“I want to talk to you about worker safety. Every year, numerous Alcoa workers are injured so badly that they miss a day of work. Our safety record is better than the general workforce, especially considering that our employees work with metals that are 1500 degrees and we have machines that can rip a man’s arm off. But it’s not good enough. I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend to go for zero injuries”.

A shareholder asks about inventories in the aerospace division. Another asks about the company’s capital ratios.

“I’m not certain you heard me. If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures. If we bring our injury rates down, it won’t be because of cheerleading or the nonsense you sometimes hear from other CEOs. It will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important: They’ve devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be an indicator that we’re making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution. That’s how we should be judged”

If there is a solution to prevent harm to our team, we must drive relentlessly to complete it.

3. It means our people are our most valuable asset and resource

Too many companies have trouble believing that if you really care and protect your people, they will protect the company. It is a lean mentality idea. Use a good process, give it time to work, use the results to course correct the path. A good process will yield a good result. We too wrapped up in seeing immediate impacts and results. These short-term, micro-managing, profit first processes get in the way of world-class in more ways than just safety.

4. It means we will communicate openly about safety

This loosely ties to the first principle. We cannot shut down communication because we reached the goal of zero. We cannot quit driving to find other hazards to eliminate, listening to the team concerns, or seeking improvement because it has been a year since the last lost-time injury. The organization must be open and available for dynamic and honest two-way communication. If there is a hazard, it needs to be communicated and fixed. If there is a better way or new technology, it should be evaluated to see if or how it might work. If someone claims that having too many Pepsi machines and not enough Coke is a safety issue, we need to be able to say no. It is about sharing the message and keeping the team going the right direction.

5. It means the safety culture is indistinguishable from the company culture

This is where world-class begins